Thursday, May 19, 2016

Eye contact and empathy

I ate lunch at a Carls Jr. yesterday. I normally eat at my desk these days, but things worked out and I found 30 minutes for a quick bite with a friend. He sat across from me at an angle at a table for four. Behind him, in another row, sat a disheveled man in a wheelchair. I took him for a panhandler.

I could not look at my friend with looking at him. We made eye contact at least a dozen times. I took to looking down at my food instead of looking at my friend. The man was homeless and squatting in a restaurant. I kept asking myself, why should I pay him any mind? He should not even be here.

An older Asian man stopped on his way out of the bathroom to hand the homeless man something. The Asian man made eye contact with me and smiled. It was a small thing; he donated a quarter and gifted me a smile. I kept asking myself, why is it so hard for me to care?

I finished lunch and as I was throwing my tray away, I saw that the homeless man was an amputee. My friend said he needed to order something to go so I lingered and asked the man what his story was. He flashed a smile and in an accent I did not recognize said, ‘Just waiting.”

I asked if he was hungry. He shook his head no. I asked if he needed anything, which should have prompted a request for spare change, he just shook his head no. I started to leave, but asked one more questions, I asked if I could get him anything. He asked for coke. I bought him one. He smiled when I delivered it and said thanks.

The man was not homeless, nor was he a bum. The Asian man had placed a small book in his hand. He was just waiting for somebody and I was a judgmental jerk.